If you’re not consulting Ken Pomeroy’s eponymous KenPom ratings before making your 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket picks all the way through the Final Four, then you would be doing it wrong. It is called March Madness because of those unforeseen upsets, early exits and fantastic finishes — but in the end, it’s still about statistical sanity.
Sure, Dick Vitale is awesome, baby, and Charles Barkley gives you a lot more than Chuck-les, but Ken Pomeroy’s in-depth, numbers-based bracket breakdown is no longer fancy analytics — it also carries a history of success.
You can learn a lot by looking at the results of the last 12 NCAA Tournaments. From Kansas cutting down the nets in 2008 to Virginia taking the most recent title two years ago, only five teams (10.4 percent) that went into the tourney ranked outside the top 20 in KenPom advanced to the Final Four. Along with Virginia (No. 1 in KenPom), the 2019 Final Four also featured runner-up Texas Tech (No. 5 in KenPom), Michigan State (No. 3 in KenPom) and Auburn (No. 11 in KenPom).
Eight of the past 12 NCAA champions were rated No. 1 in KenPom. Another, Gonzaga in 2017, made the championship game. Yet another, Kentucky in 2015, made the Final Four.
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So that’s where you find the right chalk. But KenPom can also help you identify bracket sleepers and busts based on two signature stats: adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency. If a team is highly rated in either area, then that can make up for deficiencies on the other end.
In 2018, when Loyola-Chicago crashed the Final Four, it had the No. 17 KenPom defense on its side. In 2017, South Carolina ranked 91st in offense but made a Cinderella run to the Final Four as a No. 7 seed thanks to its third-ranked defense. In 2013, Louisville rode its seventh-ranked offense and top-ranked defense to the Final Four.
Throw out the two teams that were the biggest statistical anomalies since 2010 — VCU and Butler in 2011 — and nothing has been shocking in the national semifinals when taking KenPom into account. If a team is rated higher on both offense and defense, then it can expect to beat anyone in any part of the tournament.
But before using KenPom to make your March Madness bracket picks, here are some things to know about this year’s NCAA Tournament field, based on his ratings:
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KenPom ratings for 2021 March Madness
Top teams in NCAA Tournament
|1. Gonzaga (No. 1 in West)|
|2. Michigan (No. 1 in East)|
|3. Illinois (No. 1 in Midwest)|
|4. Baylor (No. 1 in South)|
|5. Iowa (No. 2 in West)|
|6. Houston (No. 2 in Midwest)|
|7. Ohio State (No. 2 in South)|
|8. Alabama (No. 2 in East)|
Top teams in adjusted offensive efficiency
|1. Gonzaga (No. 1 in West)|
|2. Iowa (No. 2 in West)|
|3. Baylor (No. 1 in South)|
|4. Ohio State (No. 2 in South)|
|5. LSU (No. 8 in East)|
|6. Michigan (No. 1 in East)|
|7. Illinois (No. 1 in Midwest)|
|8. Houston (No. 2 in Midwest)|
Top teams in adjusted defensive efficiency
|1. Loyola-Chicago (No. 8 in Midwest)|
|2. Alabama (No. 2 in East)|
|3. Tennessee (No. 5 in Midwest)|
|4. Illinois (No. 1 in Midwest)|
|5. Kansas (No. 3 in West)|
|6. Michigan (No. 1 in East)|
|7. Utah State (No. 11 in South)|
|8. Gonzaga (No. 1 in West)|
Most likely first-round upsets based on KenPom
|1. No. 9 Wisconsin over No. 8 North Carolina (South)|
|2. No. 10 Rutgers over No. 7 Clemson (Midwest)|
|3. No. 9 St. Bonaventure over No. 8 LSU (East)|
|4. No. 10 VCU over No. 7 Oregon (West)|
|5. No. 10 Virginia Tech over No. 7 Florida (South)|
|6. No 10 Maryland over No. 7 Connecticut (East)|
|7. No. 11 Utah State over No. 6 Texas Tech (South)|
|8. No. 11 UCLA (if it plays) over No. 6 BYU (East)|
Most underrated teams in NCAA Tournament
|1. Wisconsin (No. 10 in KenPom, No. 9 in South)|
|2. Loyola-Chicago (No. 8 in KenPom, No. 8 in Midwest)|
|3. Connecticut (No. 16 in KenPom, No. 7 in East)|
|4. St. Bonaventure (No. 25 in KenPom, No. 9 in East)|
|5. USC (No. 14 in KenPom, No. 6 in West)|
|6. Maryland (No. 31 in KenPom, No. 10 in East)|
|7. Villanova (No. 12 in KenPom, No. 5 in South)|
|8. Rutgers (No. 34 in KenPom, No. 10 in Midwest)|
Most overrated teams in NCAA Tournament
|1. West Virginia (No. 27 in KenPom, No. 3 in Midwest)|
|2. Missouri (No. 51 in KenPom, No. 9 in West)|
|3. Texas (No. 26 in KenPom, No. 3 in East)|
|4. Oklahoma State (No. 30 in KenPom. No. 4 in Midwest)|
|5. Clemson (No. 42 in KenPom, No. 7 in Midwest)|
|6. Kansas (No. 22 in KenPom, No. 3 in West)|
|7. Virginia Tech (No. 50 in KenPom, No. 10 in South)|
|8. Florida (No. 37 in KenPom, No. 7 in South)|
March Madness bracket predictions 2021
Final Four picks
- Ohio State
National champion: Gonzaga
Gonzaga’s resume at 26-0 has the same feel as Virginia’s resume in 2019 from atop the KenPom rankings. In that tournament, Gonzaga was second in KenPom and upset by the mighty fifth team in KenPom, Texas Tech, in the Elite Eight.
This year, Gonzaga faces a similar looming obstacle: Iowa, the No. 2 seed in the West, is also No. 5 in KenPom. The bracket before that point is very favorable. For the Bulldogs, it comes down to the Hawkeyes to avoid ending another promising championship-caliber season short of the Final Four.
What can get the Zags zigging through to the national semifinals is their top-ranked offense and better defensive efficiency than the Hawkeyes. Two more Big Ten powers who are No. 1 seeds, Illinois and Michigan, are also well-rounded teams. Baylor is No. 4 overall in KenPom, but there’s a massive dropoff in defensive efficiency to No. 44, making it far less dangerous than the other three top seeds.
Based on the construction of both teams, Gonzaga and Michigan would represent the two best teams meeting in the national semifinals in Indianapolis. Illinois, with a favorable Midwest seed ahead of Houston and West Virginia, is the second-safest bet to get to the Final Four, however, as Alabama looms as a more dangerous regional final opponent for Michigan. In the end, it will be the Zags taking down the Illini after Illinois goes through Ohio State again.